“It’s the Cadillac of hawk watches,” my husband Bruce said as we were leaving the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
Not only does it have a wide, grassy field flat enough for lawn chairs, a picnic table, and a portable restroom back near the parking area, but also a pair of platform benches, fondly called “the Ritz” by some visitors, positioned for optimal hawk-spotting. What it doesn’t have are huge boulders to clamber over and perch on like many hawk watches in Pennsylvania. For older folks like us, whose balance might not be as good as it once was, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is perfect.
I settled down on one of the benches at the edge of the mountain next to Gene Flament (the builder of the benches) and his wife Nancy and didn’t move for hours. Above me, in the clear, blue sky of a breezy, early November day, raptors funneled southward. With the Flaments, their son Randy, and the official counter of the day, Jim Rocco, we didn’t have to wonder what species any bird was no matter how high in the sky it flew. These folks are all hardcore raptor watchers who were eager to share their knowledge with us.
Two golden eagles had already sailed past before our arrival, shortly before 10:00 a.m., and we hoped it would be a golden eagle day because when the wind is out of the east in November, as it was that day, adult golden eagles are numerous. Below us, we could see the field where Trish Miller and Mike Lanzone, of the Powdermill Nature Reserve and Todd Katzner of the Aviary, had live-trapped and radio tagged two golden eagles for the first time in 2006. Since our mountain — the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province — is the alternate migration corridor for golden eagles in the fall, where Trish Miller trapped and radio tagged another golden eagle in 2007, we had wanted to see this particular hawk watch on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau. (See my three earlier columns on the golden eagle trapping project: Golden Eagle Days (Part 1), Golden Eagle Days (Part 2), and Golden Eagle Redux.)
In quick succession, at 10:20, 10:21, and 10:38, three adult golden eagles soared past overhead, their golden crowns and napes visible on their mostly dark bodies. And that was it for us, but altogether nine golden eagles passed the hawk watch throughout the day. Not an outstanding day for golden eagles at this hawk watch, which had as many as 51 on November 23, 2003, but with a seasonal average of 217, the chances of seeing at least a few on a November day are excellent. After all, as Tom Dick, the property owner, has said, “the golden eagle is the whole reason for the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.”
Probably the best bird we saw was a northern goshawk that swept past at 12:30, its dark hood and white eyebrow line making it unmistakable.
“Oh, that’s a good bird,” Randy said, probably knowing that of the yearly average of 13 birds at this site, most are seen during spring migration in March and April and even then, four were the most seen on a day back on April 14, 2003.
I was also pleased to have beautiful views of three of the 12 red-shouldered hawks that flew past during the day. The first accompanied several red-tailed hawks, and all were lit up by the sun. The second was high in the sky, its wings flapping, its neck craning. But the third flew low and directly overhead, displaying its rufous belly and black and white tail.
As with other species we saw (two northern harriers and a sharp-shinned hawk), October is their peak month with 82 for red-shoulders on October 26, 2004. That day must have been a marvel for those watching because it was also the one that had the highest red-tailed hawk count (1,156).
We didn’t see that many red-tails during our visit, but it was a red-tailed hawk day. In fact, it was the first bird we saw when we arrived as one dove and screamed at the carved owl decoy displaying a couple ruffed grouse feathers atop a pole stuck in the grass. I lost count of red-tails after 30 because often there were three to five at a time in the sky, coming in from every direction as if they were converging for a party. We saw the larger females and smaller males, dark phase and light phase, most with white breasts and black streaks across their light bellies except for the dark phase with its dark brown breast and belly — 113 in all for us and 148 for the day.
During lulls in raptor-watching, we admired the lovely panorama of fields and forests below. At 2,850 feet, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is the highest hawk watch in the state and looms 800 feet above the valley. Located in Bedford County on Shaffer Mountain near the Somerset County line, the property is owned by both Tom Dick and his wife Sally who generously open it to the public during spring and fall migrations.
Members of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, centered in Johnstown, help to maintain the site and have been monitoring the fall migration from late August through November since 1989. On a clear day, such as we experienced, we could see as far north as Blue Knob, the second highest mountain in Pennsylvania, and as far south as the I-70 corridor. With my binoculars, I could watch for osprey over Shawnee Lake and spot the Dunning Creek Wetlands near Pleasantville in Bedford County.
The Dunning Creek Wetlands, a 170-acre nature sanctuary also owned by the Dicks, was created from a failed farm in cooperation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife program (now renamed Partners for Fish and Wildlife). Originally ditched and drained to raise crops, the farmland was often too wet to harvest and was abandoned in the late 1970s. By restoring the wetlands back in 1991, they attracted shorebirds and waterfowl in impressive numbers. Once Tom Dick spotted tundra swans at the wetland from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and made a fast exit down the winding mountain road and back up the valley to the wetlands for a closer look.
Raptors aren’t the only migrating species that are counted at the hawk watch. Volunteers also count monarch butterflies and dragonflies and note the many songbirds they see there, both migrants and residents. A tent on the grassy field provides shelter for those banding migrating northern saw-whet owls. The evening before, Dave Darney had banded 20 of the little owls as well as one eastern screech-owl.
“The mountain is a major migratory corridor for saw-whets,” Tom Dick told us.
It also has the second highest count of spring migrating raptors after Tussey Mountain, which is the second most western ridge in the ridge-and-valley province and the mountain I see from the top of our First Field. From March until May volunteers also count raptors at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
But in spring, some brave volunteers do more than monitor the raptor migration. They tie nylon ropes around their waists and are lowered down the steep mountainside to cut the brush and saplings for better viewing. Other volunteers keep the grass cut on top during workdays.
A weather station records wind direction and speed, all of which is carefully noted during hourly reports online to the Hawk Count site, maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), reports they’ve been sending in since 2002.
But the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and the raptors they are counting, including the golden eagles, are threatened by the proposed industrial wind farm on Shaffer Mountain — ten turbines north 2.5 miles away and 20 turbines northwest 2.2 miles away. Miller and Lanzone’s golden eagle live-trapping site would be a mere 1.1 miles south of the nearest turbine.
These whirling turbines will be 400 feet high and threaten not only the raptors, but also the many migrating bats that use this corridor, bats that are already gravely threatened with extirpation, due to the white nose syndrome which is wiping out whole colonies throughout the eastern United States. The mountain has been designated a Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Area of Exceptional Significance because it has two of the highest-quality trout streams in the East, an endangered Indiana bat colony, and 11,000 acres of forest with only two dirt roads.
More than 3,000 people have signed a petition opposing this particular site, and most wonder why a huge former strip mine, two miles from the proposed project, can’t be substituted for it, especially since the same company that proposes to level a pristine area of Shaffer Mountain owns the land. They reason that more than 100 wind turbines have been constructed on the same kinds of strip mines. Why despoil an area with exceptional value streams, endangered bats, and the major flyway for migratory birds and bats.
Sadly, the wind companies aren’t waiting for the results of Trish Miller’s study of the effects of wind turbines on golden eagles — those turbines made of reinforced Fiberglass, weighing 3,000 pounds or more, and rotating as fast as 200 miles per hour at their tips. Even though wind companies claim that bird deaths are minimal, a turbine site at Altamont Pass in California kills on average 75 golden eagles a year. Since our eastern golden eagle population is much smaller than the western one, such losses would soon wipe out what Miller estimates is a migratory population of 1,000 to 2,000 eagles.
Of course, the golden eagle is one of many raptor species that will be impacted by those spinning blades. And already there is an industrial wind farm on Blue Knob. Another one is slated, also on the Allegheny Front, above Tyrone, and directly across the valley from our home, even though Trish Miller has already discovered that golden eagles like to pause and feed on the Tyrone watershed site during migration.
So little is known about this species in the East that she and her husband, Mike Lanzone, are making new discoveries every year about the migration patterns of these birds that breed in northern Quebec and Labrador and migrate south for the winter to eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia as well as to southern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, by the time her study is completed, golden eagles and other raptors will have many more wind turbine blades to avoid.
Knowing all this, I found it difficult to believe that the industrial wind farm would be built on Shaffer Mountain. As Jack Buchan of Johnstown, a Shaffer Mountain landowner and member of Sensible Wind Solutions wrote in a letter to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, “If [the wind company] is permitted to build there — to degrade exceptional value streams and kill endangered animals — no place will be off-limits to the wind industry in Pennsylvania.”
The second and the last two photos are by Dave Bonta; all others are by Bruce Bonta.
March is courtship time for red-tailed hawks. Most have spent their winters farther south, but for over a decade we have had at least one in residence throughout the winter months. We’re liable to hear its piercing whistle on even the coldest winter days or watch it being harassed by the local crow gang. Often it sits for hours on a branch overlooking First Field and watches for prey.
Once the March winds pick up, though, a pair of redtails appears over First Field and for days we watch as they soar and dive, strengthening their pair bonds and defending their territory from interlopers. This part of their lives is performed out in the open, and birdwatchers are liable to be treated to breathtaking aerial displays throughout the month of March.
Several years ago, on March 7, I sat on our veranda in late afternoon. It was 57 degrees, the March wind was blowing, and the yard birds were in a frenzy of joy–calling, singing, and chasing. A pair of redtails, sounding to my ears like tin horns, emitted what the experts refer to as their chwirk calls, as they circled above Sapsucker Ridge.
Then one alighted on the remnants of an old nest while the other flew above it, circling, calling, and landing in nearby treetops, its legs extended downward. I was watching the so-called “talon-drop” display that red-tails perform to defend their territory or in courtship. Because they eventually flew off together, instead of one routing the other, they were probably a mated pair and not two males fighting over territory.
Last March 24 the redtails used our First Field, yard, and wooded ridgetops for even more elaborate courtship rites. I had been away for most of the day, but what a homecoming I received. Our son Dave announced that redtails had been courting for hours above the field. When I stepped outside to put on my hiking boots, the redtails flew low over our yard chwirking and performing talon drop. Then the female flew to a tall white pine on the far side of our powerline right-of-way, and the male streaked after her.
Because of the distance, we were not positive that they mated, but the male did appear to land briefly on the female’s back. According to ornithologists, the female leans forward with her wings dangling loosely at her sides, inviting the male to mate. Copulation lasts from five to ten seconds.
Eager to make the best of the beautiful day, I hiked along Sapsucker Ridge Trail and watched the first turkey vultures of the year soaring overhead. The redtails also continued to fly up and down the ridgetop, giving both their piercing whistles and their chwirk calls. I sat against the largest oak tree on our property and watched as the male red-tail sailed over First Field chwirking. Then, he flew straight down and up and down again, like an airplane caught in extreme turbulence, before disappearing from view. Although this so-called “undulatory flight” is thought to be a territorial display, he appeared to be using it in courtship because only a couple seconds later the female skimmed through the woods seven feet from the ground and a mere 30 feet from where I sat undetected by the courting pair. The male zipped past after her and both disappeared over the side of the mountain toward the valley. I followed their path on slow, earthbound feet, stumbling over rocks and fallen limbs. By the time I made it to the edge of the ridgetop, they had disappeared for the day.
Redtails are faithful to each other and their territory for as long as they live. If one dies the survivor will hold on to the territory until another mate appears. The territory itself ranges from half a square mile to over two square miles, depending on the abundance of food, nesting and perching sites.
Our open home grounds and First Field, tucked below and between two wooded ridgetops, seems to be ideal habitat for redtails. We also have plenty of tall trees overlooking the surrounding countryside for both nesting and perching. I suspect that they nest at the end of Sapsucker Ridge because we usually see a redtail family flying and calling in the area in early summer.
But much of the redtails’ home life is difficult to observe. “Nest-building is a very deliberate process,” Arthur Cleveland Bent once wrote in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. “The birds visit the nest at very infrequent intervals and are very cautious about it. If they suspect that the nest is watched they will not come near it.”
Donald and Lillian Stokes in A Guide to Bird Behavior caution, “It prefers to nest in rural or wild areas and at this time is easily disturbed, often abandoning its nest during nest building or incubation phases if humans approach too closely.” Taking this advice to heart, I have not tried to find the redtails’ nest but have been content to watch only what they are willing to share.
That is to say, I was content until I read Marie Winn’s charming book Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. For seven years a male redtail has not only courted over Central Park in the heart of New York City but has nested on the facade of an apartment house on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street in clear view of a growing number of Fifth Avenue Hawkwatchers. Named Pale Male because his head is almost white and his white breast lacks the usual red-tail dark belly band, he and a succession of mates have successfully raised 12 chicks from 1995 to 1999. His first mate, called First Love, ate a poisoned pigeon and died on a ledge of the Metropolitan Museum. His second mate–Chocolate–collided with a car on the nearby New Jersey turnpike. Both were victims of city living. But Blue, a dark-headed female, has so far lasted three years.
Winn, a nature columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Plug-In Drug (about television), is also an avid birdwatcher. Beginning in 1991 she joined the Regulars, as they call themselves, who not only watch birds but record their observations of all wild creatures in the park in the Central Park Bird Register and Nature Notes at the Loeb Boathouse. The Regulars, she writes, “notice what others have long learned to ignore: the sights and sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of the world around them. [They] forget the self and its hungry needs. [They] pay attention to tiny details.” One Regular even had his own obituary in the New York Times–Lambert Pohner–”an elf of a man, with a white beard and a bush hat….who watched over the birds and butterflies of Central Park for more than 40 years.”
For those of us who might think that a nature lover in New York City is an oxymoron, this tale of Central Park and its human and natural inhabitants is inspiring. Central Park, designed to be a manicured garden, has become a wilder place mostly due to lack of funds to keep it as spiffy as its designers intended. Bird diversity has increased from 121 species in 1886 to 275 species by 1996. It is, Winn says, “a green oasis in the concrete desert.” It is also on the Eastern Flyway and so is one of the birding hotspots during migration.
Still, a nesting redtail seemed beyond the bounds of belief at first. Ornithologist Dean Amadon summed up the general feeling that “that male must have a screw loose somewhere.” But Charles R. Preston, an expert on red-tailed hawks, was a bit more temperate in his remarks. “Red-tailed hawks are an amazingly adaptable species,” he told Winn, “and they have been known to use various other man-made structures for nesting.”
Winn and the other Hawkwatchers realized that much is yet to be learned about redtails and they hoped to add to the scientific literature about them. Day after day, from dawn until sometimes long after dark, and year after year, situated on a bench in Central Park, they have trained their binoculars and spotting scopes on the apartment facade, keeping meticulous notes on the annual ritual of Pale Male and his mate’s courtship, nest building, egg laying, hatching, raising and fledging of their family.
They too watch talon-drop and they discovered that Pale Male usually presents his mate with a rat or pigeon before mating on roof ornaments, television antennas, balconies and railings for precisely five seconds. To build their nest, which is refurbished every year, the hawks pluck live twigs from red maple and London plane trees in the park and line it with bark stripped from park linden trees. Their permanent nest is on a curved ledge above the middle of three 12th floor windows, behind spokes of anti-pigeon wire. It is protected from the weather by an overhanging cornice and is oriented southwest just as most red-tail nests are in the wild.
The Hawkwatchers have also documented that Pale Male incubates the eggs a third as much as the female, a higher than usual time for male red-tails, according to scientists.
Fledging is a particularly exciting time as most of the chicks fly awkwardly from building to building and practice by taking short, flying jumps from one level of a building to another before launching out across the street and into the park. This often drawn-out, bumbling process keeps the Hawkwatchers in a state of suspense for days.
Winn makes it clear that the Hawkwatchers come from all walks of life–an advertising consultant, artists, a Jehovah’s Witness minister, a newspaper vendor, dog-walkers (for the rich residents of the area), a Hollywood producer, and numerous retirees. The apartments, themselves, are part of what is called the Gold Coast because of the wealthy occupants. One apartment dweller and champion of the hawks is Mary Tyler Moore. Other well-heeled, but less well known, occupants send Winn detailed descriptions on watching the hawks plucking and eating birds on their window ledges and at least one has invited the Hawkwatchers to come up to her apartment for a closer look.
Woody Allen’s balcony is directly across the street from the nest, and Winn is not above commenting somewhat facetiously that after timing the hawks’ sex act, they watched, with interest (through their binoculars) Allen and his stepdaughter/lover Soon-Yi Previn as they strolled on their balcony. Allen, she knew, was not a nature lover because he once said, “I am two with Nature.” But through the grapevine she learned that the great man noticed the absence of pigeons in his rooftop garden, attributed it to the hawks’ hunting prowess, and tried to entice them to nest on his terrace by building a hawk nesting platform.
But Pale Male has remained faithful to his original nest. So famous has he become that sightseeing tours make stops at the park to show tourists the nest. “The Fifth Avenue hawks,” Winn says in a recent Wall Street Journal column, “had become New York superstars,…the most famous hawks in the world.”
Perhaps writer Barbara Ascher, another Hawkwatcher, best summed up what the hawks have meant to countless New Yorkers over the years in a prayer she wrote:
“Dear God, Thank you for hawks
That have made us more than we were.
Thank you for opening our hearts.
As their shells opened, so did ours.”